Saturday, August 3, 2013
Inca Trail, day 1
We arrived at the trailhead around 9 in the morning, after a couple hour drive from Ollantaytambo. The Inca Trail is pretty well regulated at this point - you need permits, the porters need to have their bags weighted several times along the way to be certain that they are not being abused - so it took a while for us to get on our way once we arrived. The Peruvians are also a little passport-stamping crazy and will stamp your passport virtually everywhere you go if you'd like. So I got a stamp the day I started the the trail and the day I arrived in Machu Picchu, which was pretty spectacular. Once we got our permits and passports cleared, as well as our group photo at the beginning, we set out.
From here, if you're not taking the Trail to the city, you are on a train, following the river. It's about an hour and a half from here to get to Machu Picchu on the train.
Porters running ahead. They would clean up camp after we left and run ahead of us about 20 minutes later, then set up lunch before we arrived, then run ahead of us again to have the tents and dinner ready before we got to our final spot of the night. At first I felt a little colonialist and weird about having porters carry all my stuff, but then thinking about it, and talking to them, it seemed to be a pretty good job to have between working in the farms with your family - they'd work for 4 days on the trail, then get a week or so off - and hiring local people is always a good thing. I read a lot about porter abuses before I left, but I also read that things are a lot better now, and saw that. And these men earned every cent they received - running along these mountains with huge bags on their backs!
The first day on the trail was rolling hills and not too difficult. We went about 11 kilometers all day - we actually never traveled all that far each day, but the altitude and terrain made it difficult enough that this afforded everyone time to go at their own pace. In the beginning, Rosa our guide walked slowly in front of us so that we'd pace ourselves, and we'd rest every 25 minutes or so to let everyone catch up. We had people in our group ranging from 20 years old to Frank, who was a fantastically good-spirited Hungarian in his 50's or 60's who had once competed as an Olympic weight lifter and who ended up arriving to campsites before everyone else on the last day.
There were still lots of villages and locals along the trail at this point - even some donkeys and horses, which would never be able to make the trail in the following days. Some people in the group were feeling sick in a few different ways, but I was - to my great surprise - doing fantastic so far. The final 20 minutes of the hike that day was the beginning of the steep steep ascent to Dead Woman's Pass - at more than 14,000ft - and as we began to ascend, all of my calm, delighted feeling-good slipped away and nausea began to rise.
Every day when we stopped for lunch and when we arrived at the campsite, we would find buckets of warm water heated by the porters, ready for us to wash our hands and faces. These sorts of luxuries seemed outrageous, but quickly became delightful as the days went on. And for the price we payed, it seemed to fit in.
There are no fires allowed on the Trail, so the porters needed to carry propane and all meals were cooked over stoves in the cooking tent. There was also a eating tent, and the porters had a tent to sleep in. Each night, at about 5:00, we had "tea time" where we would drink a cup of hot tea or coffee, and snack on popcorn. We played a lot of cards between tea time and dinner, then usually it was early to bed.
That first night, we all gathered to introduce the porters and cooks and us travelers before tea time. Rosa translated from Quechua to English, and we met the men from the surrounded villages who carried our stuff. As we were introducing ourselves, I was last in the circle and my nausea was rising and rising. As my turn came, I ran off down the hill and threw up for the first time that night. I had spoken too soon and now the altitude was hitting me. I spent the rest of the night curled up in the tent, trying to eat a little, and getting sick again and again. Luckily, once I feel asleep, I slept deeply, feeling much better at 6 when they came around to wake us up before the sun rose with a cup of hot coca tea.